Barrie: Back to Back

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Photo Source: Vitor Martins
The enduring popularity of "Peter Pan" overshadows J.M. Barrie's considerable theatrical canon, which contains a significant number of entirely viable works, however dated their dramaturgy may seem to modern sensibilities. In keeping with this, Pacific Resident Theatre's enchanting double bill of rarely seen one-acts by the diminutive Scotsman makes a persuasive case for revisiting Barrie territory beyond Neverland.

Both plays—"Rosalind" and "The Old Lady Shows Her Medals"—explore the consequences of improbable intergenerational affection. Each turns on a secret, which Barrie reveals midway through the narrative. "Rosalind," dating from 1914, takes its title from the heroine of Shakespeare's "As You Like It." It's the pet role of actress Beatrice Page, whose autographed picture sits on the mantel of an English seaside cottage. Her mother (a radiant Lesley Fera) discusses the pros and cons of middle age with the boarding house landlady (Ann Bronston, alternating with Sarah Zinsser). Enter callow Charles Roche (Kevin Railsback), infatuated with Beatrice, which cues up Barrie's central twist, turning the tables on Charles and the audience.

Under Dana Dewes' disciplined direction, "Rosalind" doesn't attempt to contextualize its delicate humor or antiquated terminology for 21st-century ears, which only increases its appeal. Bronston is fine in a functional role, and Railsback makes a capable foil, but make no mistake: The show belongs to Fera, whose gift for playing interior contradictions against external style is in a class of its own. In the fact of this magical turn, one understands what stage icons such as Maude Adams and Gertrude Lawrence must have meant to their audiences.

"The Old Lady Shows Her Medals," co-directed by Dewes and Marilyn Fox, ups the ante, to first tickling, then eye-moistening effect. This 1918 parable concerns a London charwoman (the marvelous Penny Safranek) and a brusque Scottish soldier (Joe McGovern, a find), and to reveal more would be criminal. Again, Bronston, Zinsser, and Jennifer Lonsway are competent functionaries as fellow mop-wielders; William Lithgow invests the small but pivotal role of a minister with skill. Still, the heart and soul of the piece is the interaction between Safranek's yearning maternal spirit and McGovern's vivid filial upstart, which both actors perform as though they were inventing their roles on the spot in a transcendent dual act.

The designs are serviceable rather than ornate, particularly Nick Santiago's bipolar set, but that's ultimately irrelevant. What matters here is Barrie's specific, elegant language and still-pertinent understanding of the human heart, which "Barrie: Back to Back" largely perceives and delivers. This reviewer can only hope that these wholly endearing short works represent a trend toward revisiting the author, starting with "The Admirable Crichton," and taking off from there.

Presented by and at Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Blvd., Venice. June 18–July 31. Thu.–Sat, 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. (310) 822-8392.